Biscuits & Radical Poetry

Alfreda James offers some self-care essentials for graduate students.

July 20, 2020
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My professional story begins with a recession and an epidemic and will likely end with a recession and a pandemic.

AIDS was the disease, Ronald Reagan was the president and unemployment stood at nearly 11 percent when I graduated from college with a B.A. in history. When I landed my first job in higher education, the economy was better, and so was our knowledge of virus transmission. Understanding the societal impact of HIV/AIDS would take longer. For the current crop of graduate students, AIDS is now a historical footnote managed by antiretroviral drug discoveries.

Since those early days of my career, there has been no reason to consider disease as a possible disruptor of professional progress until spring 2020 turned into days and then months punctuated by closures, social distance and virtual meetings. The academic enterprise of the research university virtually stopped while spikes in COVID-19 that were coupled with racial violence punctured lungs and social relationships.

If I’ve learned anything over the decades, it’s that self-care needs to be part of the agenda as higher education recalibrates itself to educate and develop students in a post-COVID environment. I’ll share some of the insights I’ve gained -- especially for graduate students and doubly so for graduate students who are first generation or from communities of color.

Self-Care Tips

Establishing health and well-being practices in early adulthood improves health outcomes later. My habits of bike rides, homemade biscuits, gardening and church going seem hostile to progressive thought and action to some young scholars. After all, colleges and universities thrive on assessment, evidence and reason. But my joy in tomatoes, dough and fellowship are self-care practices allowing me to sustain (and resist). COVID-19’s march through the Black population is the best and worst evidence of the consequences of a lack of societal and institutional care.

My Black body and its AARP muscles use self-care to offer a counternarrative to the long-term and unhealthy influence of institutional racism, sexism and exclusion. Fortunately for me, the DNA of my family’s southern history values self-sufficiency as well as the identification of friends and enemies. And I come from a generation where gardening, baking and faith were a form of immunization against remnants of Jim Crow laws and habits of exclusion.

Intellectual radicals and church ladies had different agendas. But they didn’t cancel each other, and they offered a buffer for me as I worked through various stages of cluelessness to define my professional goals and values with guidance from contrasting philosophies. The religious folks encouraged spiritual development, while the thinkers reframed encounters with bias as a reason for action. The shared message from both camps was self-care. The standard quote was often from Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” became my personal anthem as I struggled to articulate ideas and gain consensus:

“I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own

Self-care, then, should be a plank on the equity agenda if higher education aims lead to progressive change from research enterprises and scholarship. But self-care also requires identification of the characters, processes and policies that block change.

Self-Care Alerts From Data

There is no shortage of evidence of the qualitative daily impact of bias. We have plenty of data that demonstrate unconscious bias in hiring practices that show up in income differences. Notably, the #blackintheivorytower, #shutdownSTEM and #shutdownacademia conversations on Twitter cut through governmentspeak to describe a range of examples on how the academy undervalues, underfunds and overworks Black scholars and Black scholars in training. At the same time, a series of social media posts emanating from @ChemJobber and supported by details in Chemical & Engineering News, "How to Support and Promote Black Chemists," highlighted salary differences between Black doctoral scientists and peers in the same professional category.

All the recollections and data lead back to the institutional settings of our colleges and universities. The lab and seminar rooms where faculty train graduate students. The budget meetings where administrators decide who receives funding for what.

Higher education has rewarded and promoted habits of inattentiveness to health and well-being. We all have our personal lists of burned-out scholars and overly medicated administrators and have observed how neglectful health practices have become a benchmark for quality in some quarters. From the salty snacks in vending machines to ambiguous policies about childcare, our campuses encourage young researchers and scholars to develop the worst habits while striving for excellence.

Self-care is an equity issue because the graduate bodies coming from the margins of food deserts and racial violence are also the bodies prone to obesity and consumption of smaller amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Every moment I spend shaping bread, pruning tomato plants and in silence offers physical and metaphysical health.

Care Hazards and Defensive Action

Self-care means recognizing the people around us who impede progress, hoard resources and cause physical and emotional exhaustion. Here are a few characters and characteristics within the graduate student community we need to avoid and/or immunize ourselves against:

  • The 24-hour critic: the person who attends every conference/Zoom meeting to hijack conversations with unrelated questions or what-ifs from another field;
  • Permanently agitated 10th-year ABD (all but degree): usually a man who switches advisers frequently and is supported by a long-suffering partner because funding is long gone; and
  • Superhero: the individual who serves on every committee because everything is important.

The 24-Hour Critic. The 24-hour critic can be either a peer or faculty member who will always find more nuance, more research and more evidence for you as a graduate student to produce. He removes all the oxygen from seminar rooms with multiple questions crossing the time and space continuum. He stifles ideas but later uses the research he dismissed. Protect yourself with early identification of the 24-hour critic’s toxic behavior, and then confer with others on ways to limit impact. If you have a scheduled meeting with him, plan to have an ally interrupt the encounter to pause his flow of words. The 24-hour critic thrives by consuming large amounts of your time.

The permanently agitated 10th-year ABD. This person uses the protections of academic freedom to justify his vocabulary and use of personal space. He always injects race, ethnicity or gender to describe his lab partners. In the next breath, he’ll deride the research or progress of his peers. Or he infers that the race was the only reason a peer won recognition. He is often a protégé of the 24-hour critic. He has mastered habits of procrastination. Your protection comes from direct eye contact and a smile to give yourself nanoseconds to distance yourself from his vitriol. (Remember, his power comes from the ability to create distractions.) Then redirect the conversation to your deadlines and priorities.

The Superhero. This individual means well but is the most problematic. After all, he is a reformer and ready to organize the community. But you will often end up stuck in three-hour meetings fueled by pizza and assorted carbs. In a previous academic generation, coffee, cigarettes and Marx references fueled this character. Now, his energy comes from social media. You can expect emails or texts showing the latest outrage to arrive late at night or before dawn, because the superhero is sleep-deprived and assumes that everyone has the same circadian rhythms. Protect yourself from superheroes by offering to have walk-and-talk strategy sessions. There are no action statements to revise or data sets to identify during a fast-paced walk.

Self-care requires intentional actions both large and small. The historian in me recalls Frederick Douglass’s reflection on freedom: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

So while convening and protesting, let’s remember to run (or walk) with endurance for our emotional well-being and physical health. Transitions through a pandemic and recession require self-care.

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Alfreda James is assistant director for graduate students and postdocs at the career center at Stony Brook University and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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